Why Iran nuclear talks ended in stalemate

Nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers ran aground on Iranian preconditions about enrichment and sanctions; no plans to meet again.

Ibrahim Usta/AP
Iran's Chief Negotiator Saeed Jalili addresses the media after two-day talks between Iran and six world powers broke down Saturday in Istanbul.

Iran and six world powers failed to make any progress during two days of talks in Istanbul, raising questions about the future of diplomacy over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

The talks hung up on two preconditions laid down by Iran at the outset: that its right to enrich uranium be acknowledged, and that all sanctions be lifted.

Despite deliberations that stretched almost to midnight Friday – and several proposals put on the table for Iran to consider ­­– diplomats ended talks Saturday with no plans to meet again.

American and European negotiators expected more from Iran after preliminary meetings in Geneva last month, since diplomatic stalemate here will boost efforts in Congress for more sanctions as Washington exercises the “pressure” side of its dual-track policy.

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And Iran appears to have overreached by misjudging the willingness of the P5+1 – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany – to step away from a process it had come to see as pointless.

“This is not the conclusion I had hoped for,” said European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represented the P5+1 and said she was “disappointed,” though "the door remains open" for Iran.

“We had hoped to have a detailed and constructive discussion of those ideas,” said Ms. Ashton. “But it became clear that the Iranian side was not ready for this unless we agreed to preconditions relating to enrichment and sanctions. Both these preconditions are not a way to proceed.”

After the talks, Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili told a press conference that Iran’s demands were not preconditions, but in fact “prerequisites” that were mandatory to further discussion. He said the P5+1 wanted “dictation, not dialogue.”

The two sides often appeared to be speaking about different events. Mr. Jalili was well into his press conference before he mentioned the word “nuclear,” the subject that Ashton said later was the “only” issue discussed.At the table for the US was William Burns, the undersecretary of State for political affairs.

Jalili later told the Monitor, when asked about Ashton’s disappointment, that in talks aimed at “finding common ground for cooperation, there shouldn’t be any disappointment.”

Was he therefore pleased with the outcome? “We believe that if we were committed [together] into a common logic, we could have better results and achievements,” Jalili told the Monitor. “And that common logic is respecting the rights of nations and avoiding confronting the nation’s rights.”

Numerous UN Security Council resolutions – four of them imposing targeted sanctions on Iran – require the Islamic Republic to stop enriching uranium while it resolves questions about possible weapons efforts.

Noting that enrichment is a “right” guaranteed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has continued to make homemade 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium, and last February began refining further to 20 percent purity for nuclear fuel, bringing it one step closer to a weapons-grade capacity of 90 percent.

Iranian analysts have suggested a compromise in which Iran would continue to enrich on its soil, while opening up to much more intrusive inspections and guarantees that its program is limited to producing energy.

But in Istanbul, diplomats of the six world powers said they were unable to even gauge how receptive Iran might be to such a deal, because every conversation circled back to Iran’s preconditions.

“It’s hard to say what [Iranian] expectations were. What seems clear is what their tactics were about, which was to try to split the group and see if they could extract those preconditions up front, and … what they were met with was a very clear message and response,” said a senior US official. “If that was their calculus going in, I think they miscalculated.”

Ashton said she spelled out “specific practical proposals which would build trust” regarding an updated nuclear fuel swap deal as well as enhanced monitoring by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency. Diplomats said the Iranian side listened intently, but did no more.

“The Iranians are notoriously tough negotiators, and I think this was bound to be [a] serious test of resolve,” said the senior US official. “It remains to be seen whether the Iranians are going to be serious about engaging on the kind of practical steps that we think are essential to get from where we are today to the potential for a diplomatic resolution.”

The stalemate mirrors an earlier era of Iran’s discussions with world powers over its nuclear program that date back to the presidency of George W. Bush. For years, Washington insisted on its own precondition: that Iran stop all enrichment activity before any negotiation could begin.

Iran derided the policy at the time, saying it was “illogical” to expect it to give up the “jewels” of its nuclear program at the outset, when that was the very thing that negotiations were meant to achieve.

Today the situation is the opposite, with Iran insisting that the six powers concede at the start the very elements – acceptance of Iranian enrichment, and the removal of sanctions – that the P5+1 believes can only be achieved as the fruit of negotiations.

“The Iranians don’t use the word ‘preconditions,’” said a senior European diplomat after the talks. “The Iranians talk about, ‘We have to have an agreed framework,’ or an ‘agreed logic’…that translated in our terminology, it’s ‘preconditions.’”

In a Saturday editoriaI, Iran’s hard-line Kayhan newspaper noted that gradual shift as a victory for Iran, suggesting that astute diplomacy had convinced the P5+1 to give up ending enrichment as a precondition. Yet the Istanbul talks highlight a host of other problems.

“We passed two quite frustrating days … and we were not setting the bar very high,” said the European diplomat. “We didn’t come here with the idea that we were going to get agreement on anything, we came here with the wish that we should engage seriously and begin a real dialogue, and we didn’t do that because we got stuck in [Iran’s] pre-dialogue stage of ‘We’re not ready to discuss this and this.’

Iranian media reported that Jalili “rejected claims” by the P5+1 of Iranian preconditions and instead “defended Iran’s rights.” State-run PressTV reported that "the other side insists that Iran give up its rights," and downplayed the results, pushing the story down to third on its list, behind the killing of three French soldiers by the Taliban in Afghanistan and protests in Tunisia.

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